By Neil Jerome Morales and Karen Lema
MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines reported Southeast Asia's biggest daily jump in COVID-19 deaths on Monday and warned of more fatalities ahead, as authorities scrambled to verify thousands of suspected cases and pressure grows on hospitals after the easing of a lockdown.
The government and several large hospitals in the capital Manila said critical care capacity had been reached, adding to fears of its over-stretched health sector being deluged by the contagion.
The health ministry reported 162 new deaths that were confirmed on Sunday plus another 65 on Monday, with 2,960 additional infections. The Philippines over the past week has reported higher daily infections than Indonesia, which has Southeast Asia's highest number of deaths and cases.
Philippine COVID-19 infections have more than tripled to 57,006 since June 1 when restrictions started to ease to allow some public transport, restaurants and malls to reopen, in a bid to restart an economy decimated by some of the world's strictest and longest curbs on movement and commerce.
Although the Philippines has ramped up testing lately, the 926,252 recorded represents less than 1% of the 107 million population.
The health ministry said there were nearly 12,000 suspected positive cases yet to be verified and the death toll of 1,599 would almost certainly rise.
"As part of ongoing data harmonisation, we cannot avoid seeing cases not yet included in our official death count," Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire told a news conference, adding that efforts to speed up data collection would mean greater numbers being reported in the coming days.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque described the outbreak as an "intensifying challenge" and said hospital occupancy in Manila had jumped to 70% from 48% a week ago due to a spike in cases.
Two of Manila's biggest private hospitals declared on Monday they were at full capacity.
"Right now, the critical bed capacity especially for the intensive care units is already in the danger zone," Health Undersecretary Leopoldo Vega told reporters.
Manila remains the centre of the outbreak, but Cebu city is becoming a new hotspot with a 10th of the country's infections. It has since June 16 been under the highest level of restriction.
A resurgence in infections was to be expected with lockdown easing, former health minister Esperanza Cabral, told Reuters, but "the degree of increase" will depend on people's compliance with social distancing rules.
(Reporting by Neil Jerome Morales and Karen Lema; Additional Reporting by Enrico dela Cruz; Editing by Ed Davies, Martin Petty, William Maclean)